The Cheating Game
'Everyone's doing it,' from grade school to graduate school
Umpteen pages to plow through for honors English, anatomy, and U.S. history. . . . Geometry problems galore . . . . It was a typical weeknight for high school sophomore Leah Solowsky. Before tackling her first assignment--a Spanish essay on healthy eating--the honor-roll student logged on to her computer to chat with pals. Suddenly, it hit her: Perhaps she could download some of her workload.
Solowsky cruised to the AltaVista search engine, clicked on "Spanish," and typed in "la dieta." Fifteen minutes later, she had everything she needed to know about fruits, vegetables, and grains--all in flawless español. She quickly retyped the information and handed in her paper the next day. "I had a ton of homework, I wasn't doing that well in the class, and I felt, hey, this is one way to boost my grade," explains Solowsky, now a junior with a B-plus average at the highly competitive Gulliver Preparatory School in Miami. "I didn't think it was cheating because I didn't even stop to think about it."
Every day across America, millions of students from middle school to medical school face similar ethical quandaries--and research indicates that most choose to cheat. In a recent survey conducted by Who's Who Among American High School Students, 80 percent of high-achieving high schoolers admitted to having cheated at least once; half said they did not believe cheating was necessarily wrong--and 95 percent of the cheaters said they have never been caught. According to the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University, three quarters of college students confess to cheating at least once. And a new U.S. News poll found 90 percent of college kids believe cheaters never pay the price.*
Crib sheets and copying answers are nothing new, of course. What's changed, experts maintain, is the scope of the problem: the technology that opens new avenues to cheat, students' boldness in using it, and the erosion of conscience at every level of education. "I'm scared to death," says Emporia State University psychology Prof. Stephen Davis, who recently expanded his study of cheating to graduate students--including those in medical school. "I hope I never get a brain disease."
Cheating arts. Academic fraud has never been easier. Students can tamper electronically with grade records, transmit quiz answers via pager or cell phone, and lift term papers from hundreds of Web sites. At the same time, an overload of homework combined with intense pressure to excel in school, from hard-driving peers and parents, makes cheating easy to justify--and hard to resist. Valedictorians are as likely to cheat as laggards, and girls have closed the gap with boys. In fact, the only thing that makes Leah Solowsky's case unusual is that she got caught--earning a zero on her Spanish paper and getting barred from the National Honor Society.
Sissela Bok, author of Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, suspects part of the problem may be that "people are very confused [about] what is meant by cheating." When does taking information off the Internet constitute research, and when is it plagiarism? Where does collaboration end and collusion begin? The rules just aren't that clear, particularly given the growing number of schools that stress teamwork. The result: widespread homework copying among students and a proliferation of sophisticated sixth-grade science projects and exquisitely crafted college applications that bear the distinct stamp of parental "involvement."